Dragonwings by Laurence Yep



Dragonwings DragonwingsLaurence Yep; Harper & Row 1975WorldCatMoon Shadow is 8 when he leaves China and joins his father in San Francisco in 1903. His father, Windrider, had gone to the United States before he was born and has been sending money back to the Middle Kingdom to his mother since. Now he will live with his father and hope his mother can come later.

Windrider works for the family laundry business. Eventually he can buy into a partnership. Moon Shadow joins in the work, helping his father with deliveries, errands, and other tasks. Windrider also is an excellent kite builder although he gets little chance to use that talent these days. Windrider dreams of flying, though. He is excited when he hears about the Wright brothers’ flight in Kitty Hawk. He wants to do that himself some day.

Dragonwings is Windrider’s story told through his son’s eyes. Moon Shadow combines his father’s story with his own as he adjusts to his new life. This book is written for older children but that didn’t matter. It still has quite an impact even to adults – or at least me.

This book was written in the mid-1970’s. In the afterward Laurence Yep talks about how he wrote this book to show a different face to the American Chinese than what was normally seen in American White movies and books. Yep succeeded in that goal.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake is a component of this story. I can remember in one novel I’ve read in the past few years (was it Carter Beats the Devil, Locked Rooms, or The Confession of Max Tivoli?) the scenes of the tent city in Golden Gate park. It talked about the segregation of the Chinese community at the time. Here, in Dragonwings, we see the same scene from the other side. It’s fascinating. I kept remembering that other description while reading this portion of the book.

Yep brings a human, sympathetic face to a culture that is often depicted as dangerous in White culture novels and movies. Think Thoroughly Modern Millie, for example. How many suspense books have I read that included the evil Chinese mafia-types (the Tong?)? While Yep doesn’t ignore those segments of the culture, he instead brings the focus on the many more people who were working hard at a new, hopefully improved life. But they were segregated and often reviled. Even today we often see the harsher side of the Chinese American culture. A recent episode of Numb3rs dealt with Chinatown in Los Angeles and immigrant women for sale – not a positive representation at all.

Dragonwings is an excellent book. It won a Newberry Award when it was published and hasn’t lost any of its power since then. It also is a book about dreams – and achieving them. It reminds us that if we really want something enough and are willing to work and sacrifice for it, we can amaze ourselves with what we can achieve.

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